What is historic Ellicott City worth? Some owners will find out

Many patrons of the shops and restaurants along the quaint Main Street of historic Ellicott City likely find the stretch of old buildings priceless, but after they were wrecked again by floodwaters in May, Howard County officials plan to put a price tag on some of them.

Saying there is little doubt the town will suffer more devastating floods, just as it has twice in the past two years, county officials want to buy and raze 10 buildings on lower Main Street as part of a five-year, $50 million plan to mitigate the problem.

Funding for the proposal hasn’t been approved by the county and no offers have been made to property owners, though one landowner said he was shown a county-backed appraisal, the basis for any offer.

Legal experts say many factors contribute to arriving at a price — and not everyone is likely to agree, which could result in some of the purchases being fought in court.

“Appraisal has art in addition to its science,” said Michael Pappas, a property expert and an associate dean and law professor in the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. Appraisers “work based on their experience and judgment. Their goal is to get the best possible reflection of the value of the property, but this is something where opinions can differ.”

County officials proposed on Aug. 23 to raze 19 buildings, including the 10 on lower Main, to expand the Tiber River and reduce extreme flooding where the waterway courses through the town’s steep-sided valley.

The buildings from 8049 to 8125 Main Street housed landmark Ellicott City businesses including Bean Hollow, Phoenix Emporium, Portalli’s and Tea on the Tiber. Two buildings have been vacant since the 2016 flood. Remaining buildings are residences on the west end. Together, they represent about five percent of the historic district.

Under federal and state eminent domain laws, as well as the U.S. Constitution that guarantees compensation, owners must be paid for their properties. Tenants also will be offered help finding new locations and moving expenses.

“All of the property owners have been in discussions with the county,” said Mark Miller, a county spokesman, who added that the tenants will be assisted by the Howard County Economic Development Authority in their search for new spaces.

The plan to demolish buildings drew swift criticism from Preservation Maryland, which released a paper outlining alternatives to demolition, including at least maintaining the facades to retain the town’s historic character. Public acquisition of properties still would be required under the scenarios that include reinforcing structures and making them “wetproof” so they can flood without damage.

Another alternative would allow residential or office uses on upper floors. A third method would resemble a plan in Harpers Ferry, W.Va., where the properties would be run as a park by the state or federal government and tourist-focused educational panels installed in a damage-resistant environment.

Those different uses likely wouldn’t affect how much the county offers property owners, Pappas said, though the county could argue generally there is no viable commercial or residential use for the flood-prone properties and offer less compensation.

He does expect the offers would be more than the properties’ assessed values for tax purposes. The 10 buildings together are assessed at less than $2 million, according to state records.

Appraisals forming the basis for offers could be taken from three approaches, or a combination, Pappas said. Appraisers could look at comparable property sales, assess the cost of acquiring the land and rebuilding, or estimate income from leasing.

It is not uncommon, he said, for owners to hire their own appraisers or lawyers and negotiate the sale price or sue for more compensation if an agreement can’t be reached.

Joe Rutter is a retired county worker who grew up in the area and joined with a partner to buy three properties on Main Street out of fondness for the town. One building at 8081 Main, housing Tea on the Tiber, is on the county’s list for acquisition.

He said officials have not made him an offer but shared an appraisal that he said “was in the ballpark.” He declined to say how much it was for, but the building is assessed for tax purposes at just over $60,000.

He and his partner bought the property for $550,000 in 2015 before the 2016 flood and quickly rebuilt it afterward because the tenant wanted to return. The tenant, Tea on the Tiber, decided against returning after the May flood, and Rutter said that’s made him amenable to selling the property.

His other properties, bought before the 2018 flood are clean and either occupied or ready for lease. Sweet Elizabeth Jane is operating in 8289 Main Street. He hopes to lease the other building, an old theater at 8217 Main, to tenants who lost their spaces and want to remain in the corridor.

Like Preservation Maryland, Rutter would like to see the facades preserved and the properties reused. But he said whatever the county decides, he’d like officials not to waste time in negotiations or doing unnecessary studies. The boarded-up buildings make the historic mill town look like a “slum,” which is bad for remaining businesses, he said.

“The worst thing I could do is nickel-and-dime and hold up what the county is trying to do,” he said. “I want them to get in there and do what they’re going to do. We have 10 boarded-up buildings. We need to get it done and as quickly as possible.”

Others don’t want to waste their own time or money. Evan Brown operated Portalli’s in leased space at 8085 Main Street for a decade and got permits to rebuild just weeks after the latest flood. He’d cleaned and readied the space for plumbers and electricians. Then, he heard rumblings about the county’s proposal.

Brown said he agreed that flood mitigation is needed, though he was unsure if historic buildings should be razed. Since he’s not a building owner, he said he’s gotten few details about what would be available to his business.

After hearing the county would offer relocation assistance through the Howard County Economic Development Authority, he said would welcome the help.

“I have a really good group of loyal customers,” he said, “and I think they would visit us anywhere we relocate in Howard County.”

There could be more compensation for some tenants, too, according to Pappas and Joseph P. Suntum, principal in the Rockville-based law firm Miller, Miller & Canby and its eminent domain/condemnation group leader.

Leases usually spell out what happens under a condemnation or eminent domain claim. Tenants should review their leases and take up the matter with their landlords, rather than the county, the legal experts said.

Many leases say tenants are not entitled to a share of government compensation, though some landlords will voluntarily share proceeds with long-term tenants, particularly if they maintain a relationship. Still, Suntum said, “It’s often a challenge to make sure everyone gets full compensation.” Owners generally make out better than tenants.

In this case, the county may seek a better deal for property owners and businesses than required under eminent domain, often invoked for new roads and schools or economic development, the legal experts said. That’s because the owners and tenants already have been victims of a natural disaster drawing widespread media attention and public sympathy, Suntum said.

Politicians will want to appear fair, though not irresponsible, with public money.

Suntum said he’s not taken on any eminent domain cases involving flood mitigation but said he is likely to eventually. He noted that it’s an issue for coastal areas that have had to rebuild after major floods, and Ellicott City could serve as an example.

“It’s going to become a bigger and bigger issue,” he said. “People will discover climate change is real and not a hoax and try to plan for it. Some properties will be saved and some won’t.”

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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